More Than Big Brother

Morten Hoi Jensen in Salon. (Always awesome to see TQC alumni doing great things.)

This isn’t meant to suggest that Orwell is not relevant to the current debate about the politics of electronic surveillance. Clive James once wrote that “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” were just the bark of Orwell’s writing and that his journalism was the tree. Perhaps if sales of his “Collected Essays” had soared as much as “Nineteen Eighty-Four” people would realize how wrongheaded the comparison of the NSA to Big Brother really is — and how much more Orwell has to contribute to contemporary debate than just “Big Brother” and “Newspeak.” When NSA director James Clapper said he’d responded “in the least untruthful way” to Congress in March by telling them that the NSA does not intentionally collect any data of American citizens, Orwell’s famous definition of political language — that it is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” — seemed particularly apt.

The relationship between politics and the English language, as the title of that famous essay goes, was a lifelong preoccupation of Orwell’s, and in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” it found only extreme expression (naturally, given the extreme nature of the story). Early in the novel, Winston Smith is having lunch with the philologist Syme, who is at work on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary. “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” the zealous Syme intones and, picking up on Winston’s indifference, reproaches his colleague . . .

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